by Whit Gibbons

December 9, 2012

Concerns that obsessions with smartphones lure some people, particularly youngsters, away from the great outdoors are valid. Clearly, some folks prefer to spend endless hours playing games with goofy looking birds on a cell phone rather than going outside and looking at real birds. Nonetheless, some apps can actually enhance environmental appreciation. I downloaded one recently that had two features I found attractive. First, it allowed me to find the nearest local, state or federal park in my vicinity. Second, it was free.

The Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder app, sponsored by L.L. Bean and Ford, may well become one of the most commonly used apps for outdoor recreation activities in the country. Enter your location by city name or zip code, then select from several options. If you click on Find Parks, you can search for Federal & State Parks or Local Parks. Click on the name of a park to get its address (and how far away it is), a brief description, directions (including a mapping option) and other pertinent information. Each park site has a Things to Do category showing what activities are available.

Or from the home screen you can click on "Select Things To Do." then choose from the 20 icons depicting activities. I entered my zip code and clicked on the Fishing icon. The app provided a list of 61 places to drop a hook at distances ranging from 25 to 100 miles away. Additional listings were available for parks with angling opportunities more than 100 miles away. To fish, you need water and a license, and anglers do not really expect more information than how to get to the locality. Next, I tapped the Bird Watching icon and found birding to be a recognized activity at only three parks. Of course, anyone can watch birds anywhere that there are birds, but parks that are in major flyways, have feathered friends of special interest or try to attract waterfowl put particular emphasis on bird watching.

Other categories that keep the visitor in touch with natural habitats include specialized outdoor activities such as climbing, caving, and horseback riding. Outdoor sports such as tennis and golf are also categories. People interested in camping can select the Camping or RVing icons. Once the list of parks is shown, click on one to get information about how many tent and RV campsites there are; whether the camp sites have water, electricity, and sewer hook ups; which sites have scenic views; and so on.

If you are the kind of person who likes to plan a trip in intricate detail before you hit the road, you can determine which state, federal and local parks you'll encounter along the way and what activities are available at each park. If you want to take your bikes along, you can find camps with bicycling; if you're an avid angler, you can find camps that allow fishing; if you're a golfer, you can find golf courses. And if you want to camp, you can make arrangements before you begin your trip. If you prefer a more spontaneous approach to travel, the Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder app can help you decide whether to stop for a picnic or keep driving.

The Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder app is available for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch with iOS 4.3 or later. And if you don't have one of those devices? You can check out ParkFinder at The online material is not identical to the mobile app, but plenty of excellent information is available. The ParkFinder link is at the bottom of the L.L. Bean home page, under More to Explore.

But this app isn't useful just for planning stops along the way when you're heading off on vacation. It is a superb resource for finding recreational activities only a short drive from where you live. I can almost guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised at how many opportunities there are for you to enjoy the outdoors close to home.

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